The Democratic Leadership Council, the lost-inside-the-Beltway group that last fall championed the disastrous Democratic strategy of cozying up to the Bush Administration on military issues while offering murky alternatives to GOP domestic policies, is now proffering advice to the party’s 2004 presidential contenders. An early-April memo from its Washington command-and-control center sternly warned that “antiwar Democrats do not have the right to claim, as [former Vermont Governor Howard] Dean often does, that opposing the war is a matter of fidelity to Democratic tradition, or that antiwar Democrats represent ‘the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.'”

To hear the corporate-friendly, right-leaning DLC tell it, “there’s an enduring tradition of Democratic support for the principled use of force,” which includes support for the United Nations but that also preserves “America’s right to enforce international law against Iraq alone if necessary.” The DLC–which counts two presidential contenders who backed George W. Bush on Iraq, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt, as former chairs–complains that antiwar Democrats suffer from a “tendency to interpret any military conflict through the nostalgic lens of the political struggle against the war in Vietnam.” The campaign of the most outspoken war foe among the Democratic contenders, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, is dismissed as the “Unclaimed Freight Outlet of Democratic politics, retailing every failed or outdated lefty idea with a fierce and touching passion.”

The DLCers are echoing a common view among Democratic strategists who don’t get out much. The quivering crowd of Washington insiders who maneuvered their party out of contention in last fall’s Congressional contests continues to preach a caution-over-conscience line exemplified by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Martin Frost, who scolded House minority leader Nancy Pelosi for attempting to soften pro-Bush posturing in the House’s “support the troops” resolution. “We should not equivocate in our support,” Frost grumbled.

Frost and others who cling to the tired fantasy that Democrats will find a road to the White House that leads through the prowar states of the Old South may actually believe the DLC spin that says candidates who make antiwar statements speak only to “a persistent if small faction in the party.” But Democrats who are spending time with the people who will decide the party’s nomination know that there’s nothing “small” about the antiwar faction. The liberal party activists and African-Americans who form two of the most powerful voting blocs in critical caucus and primary states have remained, according to polls, steadfast in their opposition to Bush’s military adventurism. When North Carolina Senator John Edwards defended his support for the war before a crowd of 300 Iowa Democrats in early April, only two people clapped.

Even if the war fades as an issue, the candidates’ stands regarding it are likely to have a dramatic influence on the nomination fight. Edwards, Lieberman and Gephardt have been pegged in the eyes of grassroots Democrats as contenders out of sync with the values that have animated party activists for the better part of four decades. Dean, meanwhile, is attracting key endorsements, raising money at a faster clip than anyone anticipated and moving into a tie for first place in New Hampshire polls with the race’s presumed frontrunner, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. This frustrates Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and all-but-declared candidate Gary Hart, all of whom have adopted more explicitly antiwar positions than the Vermonter. But the Dean phenomenon speaks to an emerging reality in the contest.

Even as they express fervent antiwar sentiments, many Democratic activists continue to look for a “full package” candidate who respects their ideals but can also dispatch Bush. Dean will evolve his campaign into a crusade for healthcare reform, which he hopes will position him as the most electable of the dissenting Democrats. But he may find himself blocked by Kerry, who seems to be succeeding in playing the war issue both ways–just as Bill Clinton, who never took a clear stand on the Gulf War, did in 1992. Kerry voted for the “use of force” resolution but has refused to echo the apologias for the war that Lieberman, Gephardt and Edwards mouth in front of Democratic audiences. Rather, Kerry scores points with those same crowds by pounding Bush for committing a “breach of trust” against the UN, destroying international alliances and increasing the risk of terrorist attacks. In early April, Kerry grabbed the anti-Bush high ground. Regardless of how successful the United States is in waging war against Iraq, Kerry told New Hampshire Democrats, it will take a new President to rebuild the country’s damaged relationships with the rest of the world. “What we need now is not just a regime change in…Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States,” he said to cheers from the crowd and catcalls from the GOP. When a rogues’ gallery of Republicans, including House majority leader Tom DeLay, attacked him, Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, declared, “I don’t need any lessons in patriotism or in caring about America from the likes of the right wing and Tom DeLay.” He called it a “pleasure” to be attacked by the GOP attack dogs. Serious candidates have recognized something the DLC doesn’t yet understand: The people who will pick the party’s nominee are not fans of George W. Bush or his war.